Reusable Coffee Cups: A Simple Step for a Huge Impact

68 million Styrofoam coffee cups are thrown away every day in America. By the time you have finished reading this article, about 50,000 cups will have been discarded nationwide. If we break that down further, about 5,000 cups will be tumbling into trash bins by the end of each sentence. That torrent of waste continues all day, every day, across America, the world’s largest consumer of coffee.

By any measure, it’s a vast amount of waste. It’s not a sustainable way to live. And, thankfully, it’s easy to change.

The environmental impact of disposable coffee cups arises from several sources:

  • Styrofoam cups are made from polystyrene. Like most plastics, it is an oil-based product. Fossil fuels are therefore heavily involved in the product itself as well as in the process of manufacturing it.
  • Styrofoam cannot biodegrade in any normal sense of the word. Nor can it be fully recycled. The mountains of cups being thrown out today will mostly still be in landfill sites in 500 years time.
  • Paper cups are not much better. They are coated with polystyrene (another oil-based plastic) which stops the cups from degrading.
  • Not only that, the paper cups are made from wood pulp or paper – which require trees to be cut down in order to make them. Recycled paper has been tried in coffee cups – but it results in leaks.

A study by Starbucks in 2000 calculated that the average paper-based coffee cup produced 0.24 lb of CO2.  Disposable cups not only contribute directly to the creation of a major greenhouse gas, they also create a lot of waste. One cup per day results in 23 lb of waste by the end of the year, just from the cups that are thrown away.

Biodegradable coffee cups are starting to become available, but they require a lot of resource to manufacture. And at the end of the day (or the drink) they will still be thrown away. Any product that is only used once will, by definition, tend to place a heavy burden on the planet’s finite resources.

The real solution is to use a reusable cup.

Although reusable cups have a bigger initial environmental impact than paper ones when they are first made, over time, they become more resource-efficient than throwaway cups. Since a coffee mug or tumbler is designed to be used about 3,000 times in its life, it provides about eight years of use for the average daily coffee drinker. That represents quite a reduction in its environmental impact compared with 3,000 throw-away cups.

Some cafes sell their own branded or neutral reusable tumblers; others give a discount if you bring your own.

With 400 million cups consumed nationwide each day, the simple act of using a reusable mug would lead to a great reduction in waste and energy consumption. All told, it’s a better way to start the day.